James Santiago Baca

This Author Learned to Read and Write in Prison, Now He’s Giving Back to Young Readers

There isn’t anything wrong with looking back on the things we’ve done in the previous year. Although some memories will make us say, “Yikes!”, others could shed some light. By seeing mistakes as lessons and hard times as room for growth, there’s nothing to hold us prisoner to the past. It’ll only help us grow. Author and poet Jimmy Santiago Baca encourages us to think this way.


Jimmy Santiago Baca

 Image Via Poetry Foundation


His grandmother cared for him until he was eventually moved to an orphanage, then lived on the streets, then went to prison for over six years. It was here that Baca taught himself how to read and write. His first two poems while incarcerated were to his grandmother and girlfriend. “The initial impulse to write poetry came from those two, it came from an act of love.”


Baca could recall selling poems to other inmates in exchange for cigarettes. It was when he was released that he took an inmate’s advice and got his work published. From there, with a passion to learn, he went on to get his bachelor’s degree and honorary PhD in literature. He has published countless books of poetry, stories, a screenplay, and his most recent venture gives it all back to those in need.


Jimmy Santiago Baca

Image Via Eileen Verbs Books 


Being of Chicano and Apache descent, he created Baca’s Bookmobile to bring books and literature to kids on reservations where they lack the tools for learning and reading. “So we want to rob their attention for a second just long enough to give them a damn book.”


So, are you looking for some inspiration to look back on the past year while growing into the new year? Check out Baca’s poem “It would be neat if with the New Year.”


It would be neat if with the New Year…


By Jimmy Santiago Baca
for Miguel
It would be neat if with the New Year
I could leave my loneliness behind with the old year.
My leathery loneliness an old pair of work boots
my dog vigorously head-shakes back and forth in its jaws,
chews on for hours every day in my front yard—
rain, sun, snow, or wind
in bare feet, pondering my poem,
I’d look out my window and see that dirty pair of boots in the yard.
But my happiness depends so much on wearing those boots.
At the end of my day
while I’m in a chair listening to a Mexican corrido
I stare at my boots appreciating:
all the wrong roads we’ve taken, all the drug and whiskey houses
we’ve visited, and as the Mexican singer wails his pain,
I smile at my boots, understanding every note in his voice,
and strangers, when they see my boots rocking back and forth on my
keeping beat to the song, see how
my boots are scuffed, tooth-marked, worn-soled.
I keep wearing them because they fit so good
and I need them, especially when I love so hard,
where I go up those boulder strewn trails,
where flowers crack rocks in their defiant love for the light.

Feature Image Via Mesa Community College